Sunday, May 3, 2015

Cleveland Abduction (Sony Pictures Television, Woolridge Productions, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All Rights Reserved

The latest “world premiere” movie on Lifetime last night was Cleveland Abduction, based on the famous case of three women who were kidnapped in Cleveland, Ohio and held in captivity for over a decade by an astonishingly ordinary person, Ariel Castro (Raymond Cruz), who worked weekdays as a school bus driver and occasionally played gigs in a salsa band which rehearsed in his living room, having no idea that three women were in the same house being held against their will. The story broke when the women were rescued in May 2013 after Castro made a slip and, amazingly, left his front door unlocked, thus allowing one of the women to get the attention of the neighbors, who ultimately called the police, who rescued the women and staked out the house (an unprepossessing Cleveland row house whose very ugliness and lack of charm make it virtually its own character in the film). The film was at least nominally based on the memoir Finding Myself by Michelle Knight (played in the film by Taryn Manning), the first of Castro’s victims and the one who probably suffered the most — for some reason, every time he got her pregnant he would beat her up and kick her in the abdomen until she aborted, whereas he let one of the other woman bear his child, and he also taunted Michelle because she didn’t have a functioning family that was looking for her, putting up missing-person posters for her, lobbying the media to keep covering her story and the like the way the other two women he’d kidnapped, Amanda Berry (Samantha Droke) and Nancy DeJesus (Jean Zarzour), did. What makes the story so compelling is not only how horrifying Ariel Castro’s crimes were but how ordinary he seemed — this is the sort of tale that invites invocation of Hannah Arendt’s famous description of Adolf Eichmann, “the banality of evil” — he wasn’t an especially interesting person and he wasn’t particularly well-to-do, either.

One expects the people engaged in this sort of nasty sexual enslavement to be part of the 1 percent, like the originator and the man after whom this conduct is named, the Marquis de Sade, or the legendary Bluebeard, or the fictional Alexander Grey (the male protagonist in the insanely successful Fifty Shades books) — yet here is an ordinary proletarian, who drove a school bus (until he was laid off, whereupon his treatment of his captives got even rougher, partly because he couldn’t afford to feed them even what little he had before that and partly because he all too predictably used them as an outlet on whom to take out his frustrations at being unemployed) and led a small-time salsa band which played a few gigs at night. The movie is unusually good by Lifetime standards, though I suspect that’s more due to the inherently compelling nature of the story than any particular talent of the filmmakers, including director Alex Kalymnios (who seems to have instructed cinematographer Richard Wong not to hold the camera steady, but to allow it to move in short, jerky ways that add to the nervousness of the situations being depicted) and screenwriter Stephen Tolkin, who (inevitably) left out a lot of Michelle Knight’s memoir but actually did a pretty good job of boiling it down. The story of Ariel Castro remains enigmatic, partly because one month after he pled guilty to over 900 criminal counts against him (inexplicably, he had allowed his victims to keep journals and from those records the police and prosecutors were able to piece together an indictment with a staggering 979 counts against him, from which he pled guilty to all but 40 and got the rather preposterous sentence of life plus 1,000 years) he hanged himself in his cell, thereby taking all the secrets of What Made Ariel Run with him. From the few bits of Ariel Castro’s account of his actions that are preserved — in videotapes of police interrogations and courtroom proceedings — it seemed he wanted to present what he did as no big deal, saying that the women were free to leave and all the sex between him and them was consensual (yeah, right), and his overall affect, shown in the film in some pretty smarmy dialogue that shows the level of doublethink Castro engaged in, on one level needing to buy chains (presumably at the local Home Depot or Ace Hardware), locks, handcuffs and other paraphernalia to keep his victims chained, bound and captive, and also to make sure no relatives or friends or neighbors learned his secrets; while he also simultaneously thought of them as a “family” and had a twisted sort of love and affection towards them that comes through in one pathetic (in both senses) scene in which he confesses some of his failings to Michelle not long before she was rescued.

We know a good deal more about Michelle Knight than we do about Ariel Castro, since she published a book about her experiences (and apparently the other two women have clubbed together to write their book, and a British author interviewed on the Behind the Headlines show about the case after the movie has written a third one from a more objective perspective) and showed herself to be predisposed to be a victim of a sexual enslaver even before she and Castro met. She was a “bad girl” who was molested by her mom’s boyfriend, ended up partnered (professionally and personally) with a drug dealer until she was busted, had a son somewhere along the way and ended up with him being a victim of physical abuse from one of the men in her life, which got the kid taken away from her. Indeed, she was on her way to a meeting at the Cleveland Department of Social Services to talk to them about getting her boy, Joey (Kyle McCann), out of the clutches of the social workers and the welfare department when on foot to the appointment in an unfamiliar part of town, she was accosted by Ariel Castro and offered a ride. The level of her naïveté is shown not only by the fact that the lure he used to get her into his car was the promise of a puppy — one expects to see cute young dogs more as the lure used by a pedophile to gain access to a pre-pubescent child rather than a kidnapper and sexual enslaver to entrap an adult woman. Later he gives her a puppy, only to kill it brutally in front of her face when she’s disobeyed him in what’s probably the most chilling scene in the film (though one that gives it a run for the money is one early on in her captivity, when he’s strung her up and is hanging her from the ceiling like a piñata, and she loses control of her bladder and starts involuntarily peeing through her pants onto the floor below). Cleveland Abduction is a chilling tale, made all the more frightening (I keep coming back to this, but it’s true) by Ariel Castro’s ordinariness — instead of the kind of eye-rolling villain one wants a character like this to be (mainly because at then we could at least tell ourselves we’d know enough to avoid him, and at best be able to figure out what he was doing and turn him in) he’s just a normal guy who just happens to have a really twisted and disgusting hobby he managed to keep secret from his family, friends neighbors and everybody else for over a decade.

The best thing I can say for Raymond Cruz’s performance as Castro is he projects the ordinariness by which he was able to stay under the radar of the authorities for so long. He’s also got the knack of making us understand that Castro saw nothing wrong with what he was doing — at least according to his own statements (based on Michelle’s recollections of them during her long period as his captive) he had conceived the idea of holding women captive after his wife (the father of his daughter Emily, who was about the same age as Amanda and Nancy and who unwittingly helped his dad entrap them — “But I’m not a stranger offering you a ride! I’m the father of a friend of yours!”) left him, though he says little about her except to call her a “bitch.” He’s blatantly foul-mouthed but in a way that’s pretty typical of a working-class male — at one point he gives his captives a TV set but threatens to take it away if they ever watch any programs featuring African-Americans, whom he hates — and as the years go by (they don’t seem to go by as slowly as they no doubt did in real life or they seemed to in Michelle Knight’s book, mainly because Kalymnios and Tolkin had only a two-hour running time, less commercials, to tell the tale) his actions and the responses of his captives fall into a dull routine, so much so that when they finally do get the chance to get out we’re as surprised as they are. While I still think Emma Donoghue’s Room is the best story ever written about this type of abduction (it opens six years after the woman has been taken captive and been held in a shed, separate from her abductor’s house and built by him especially for this purpose, and it’s told from the point of view of the woman’s five-year-old son, who has literally been born inside the room and known no other life) and I wish someone with the right sort of demented imagination would film it, Cleveland Abduction is quite moving in a desperate sort of way, and Kalymnios and Tolkin deserve a lot of credit (especially given the network they were working for) for not milking the tear-jerking aspects of the story, not turning it into a massive soap opera, and trusting the horror of what Ariel Castro did to those women to come through without a lot of manipulative direction and writing to guy the audiences’ emotions.